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Greg Merson Wins World Series Of Poker Main Event

High-Stakes Poker Pro Got Sober Before Having Best Year Of His Life


LAS VEGAS — After a 402-hand marathon final table, poker professional Greg Merson sat with all the chips in the 2012 World Series of Poker $10,000 buy-in main event.

Prior to this summer, Merson had played more than seven million hands on the computer over the years, but still wallowed in obscurity among the poker community. Thanks to the WSOP final table this week, he became a poker legend and one of the game’s most recognizable faces.

“I’m trying not to cry,” an emotional Merson said immediately after the win.

Merson, a 24-year-old from Laurel, MD., finished off a starting field of 6,598 at around 5:45 a.m. local time Wednesday to scoop $8.5 million and the prestigious no-limit hold’em championship bracelet — worth a six-figure sum in raw materials.

The victory was his second of the 2012 World Series. Merson won a tournament in July for more than $1.1 million, a performance that solidified his standing as a professional on the live circuit.

His main event journey wasn’t as smooth.

Merson was down to just a couple of big blinds with about 150 left in the event, but with a lot of help and a little patience, he managed to emerge from the short-stack abyss and rebuild.

“I knew I needed to get a little lucky and double up once or twice, but after that, I thought it was entirely possible that I could run it back up,” Merson said.

Merson’s aggressive style delivered, especially as play became shorthanded — a variation of poker that he usually dominated on the Internet. He said he thought he was the best player at the final table, and he ended up doing everything to justify that hubris.

Merson’s climb through the poker ranks mirrors his treacherous battle with synthetic heroin and cocaine, addictions that he overcame most recently in December of last year. He called his detoxification in a hotel room at Aria casino the “worst week of [his] life.” He told Card Player that he could have — or perhaps should have — died from his habitual drug use.

“I’m just so lucky to even be alive,” Merson said. “When I won [my first] bracelet I just started fucking crying. To have a second chance at life and to do what I want to do — it’s amazing.”

He said he has been clean ever since. Merson declined a drink after his win, adding that he has no fears of relapsing into drugs or the lifestyle that put him on the brink.

He said he wakes everyday to the thought of keeping his past demons far away.

Merson’s friends and family seem to share the same confidence that he won’t unravel from having a bloated bank account and the fame that comes with winning the main event.

Stan Merson, the champion’s father, told Card Player that the family “won’t permit his head getting too big.” He added that his son has a good support system of friends.

The $8.5 million first-place prize is Merson’s only on paper and in the WSOP’s record books, as a large chunk will go to his backer and long-time friend, Anthony Gregg.

Gregg was about as happy as Merson when the final river card hit the felt.

“I was pretty confident that he was going to win,” Gregg said. “It was destiny.”

Jesse Sylvia, a Las Vegas pro, finished second to Merson and netted nearly $5.3 million.

Merson grinded down his opponents for the most part, but did receive a huge gift from sixth-place finisher Andras Koroknai. The Hungarian was playing solid, until blowing up and sending his 40-million chip stack to Merson on Monday.

When play was three-handed, Merson made an enormous stone-cold all-in bluff against Jake Balsiger. The hand was one of Merson’s defining moments at the final table.

Despite entering Tuesday with the chip lead and starting off strong, Merson eventually lost his footing. The final three endured a 249-hand roller coaster that featured numerous lead changes and come-from-behind run outs.

Not long after Slyvia suffered a bad beat to double up Balsiger at one point, Merson had Sylvia all-in and behind. Merson’s pocket kings were ahead of Sylvia’s A-K.

However, the board ran out 5-3-2-8-4, and Slyvia doubled up to the chip lead. Merson no longer seemed invincible, but he managed to recover and eventually knock out Balsiger in third.

Balsiger, a 21-year-old student at Arizona State, put nearly $3.8 million in his bank account.

In contrast to three-handed play, which was longer, in terms of hands, than three out of the last seven main event final tables, the Merson-Sylvia heads-up match happened in an instant.

After some initial betting on the final hand, Merson shoved from the button with the KDiamond Suit 5Diamond Suit, and Sylvia surprisingly called off his 35-big blind stack with the QSpade Suit JSpade Suit.

The board ran out 9Diamond Suit 6Club Suit 3Heart Suit 6Spade Suit 7Club Suit, and it was all over. Merson was mobbed by his friends and family amidst a storm of confetti and a flood of flashing lights.

Thanks to his run at the World Series, Merson now sits atop Card Player’s 2012 Player of the Year race. He has cashed for $9,664,179 this year.

Here are the main event final results:

1. Greg Merson — $8,531,853
2. Jesse Sylvia — $5,295,149
3. Jacob Balsiger — $3,799,073
4. Russell Thomas — $2,851,537
5. Jeremy Ausmus — $2,155,313
6. Andras Koroknai — $1,640,902
7. Michael Esposito — $1,258,040
8. Robert Salaburu — $971,360
9. Steve Gee — $754,798

Winner Photo Courtesy of Joe Giron/WSOP

Follow Brian Pempus on Twitter — @brianpempus